There is some discrepancy as to whether the first Mass in Ballarat was celebrated on Sunday 19th October or Sunday 26th October 1851. Father Geoghegan sent Father Patrick Dunne to Ballarat in October 1851. It took four long days to negotiate the hazards of the wagon track that cut its way through Keilor, Bacchus Marsh and Ballan. When Father Dunne eventually reached Ballarat, he found thousands on the goldfields, living with the barest necessities and housed mainly in makeshift dwellings and tents. Until he had a rough calico tent himself, Father Dunne was offered shelter in the tent of John O’Sullivan. This was located on Post Office Hill close to Golden Point near Main Road. O’Sullivan had been the carpenter working on the church buildings at Pentridge, where Father Dunne was stationed. When news of the gold rush came he left the building with the sides erected and with no roof, and had, with thousands of other hopefuls, made the pilgrimage to the Diggings. Because the majority of the Catholic congregation resided near Brown Hill, it was here that the first Mass was celebrated, in a borrowed tent thirty feet by fifteen feet. Dunne reminisced later that, although the first Mass should have been celebrated on October the nineteenth, the mass vestments were left to a wagon driver to bring, but the wagon did not arrive in time and therefore the first Mass was celebrated at Brown Hill on October the twenty-sixth, 1851.
It is difficult to ascertain the exact site of this first Mass, but Dunne himself stated I said Mass on Brown Hill close to the Yarrowee Creek. It is believed that there once stood a building, east of the present Brown Hill Hotel in Humffray Street. It was looked on as a church property but it was no longer in existence in 1900. Michael Campion Carey, one of the first teachers at St Alipius, regularly visited the site. He knelt, kissed the ground and proceeded to say his Rosary. He died at Ballarat East in 1911 aged seventy-seven years.
There is no record of any resident priest on the Ballarat Goldfields from November 1851 to November 1852. On the 3rd November 1852, the appointment of the Reverend Matthew Downing to the Roman Catholic Chaplaincy of the Ballarat Goldfields was approved. The first baptisms in Ballarat, from November 1852 to February 1853, were recorded in the Melbourne registers. The first baptism recorded in the Ballarat registers was for Michael Loughnan who was baptised in February 1853, his parents being John Loughnan and Alice Delaney and the sponsors being William O'Brien and Bridget Hanlihan.
The first marriage to be recorded at St Alipius was celebrated on the 22nd March 1853. This is the earliest surviving recorded marriage in the registers of the churches for Ballarat. Father Matthew Downing recorded six marriages which represent one marriage per month and so cover the first six months of the St Alipius Marriage Registers. Only one of these first six marriages is registered with the Victorian Marriage Register. The earliest marriage recorded (on the 22 March 1853) is for Daniel Cannon and Margaret Guthrie, both of "Eureka". The witnesses to the marriage were Catherine Lenane and Daniel O'Brien. The Old Eureka Lead is defined as the area that runs between Little Bendigo and Brown Hill Ranges. "Eureka" was a much broader area and was supposedly named by Dr Timothy Doyle, whose marriage is the only one of these first six marriages that was registered.
Matthew Downing had pitched his tent at the Brown Hill Diggings, near the site of the Brown Hill Toll Gate. This was close to the Brown Hill hotel and to the present junction of Humffray and Water Streets. He wrote that he selected a site on a piece of rising ground near the spot where the road to the Gong Gong crosses the creek. Here he erected a little church which was built of slabs and canvas and roofed with bark stripped for him by the blacks. The altar and its surroundings were of the most primitive character, little stakes fixed in the ground being freely used. A small tent stood near which served as his abode. Here also he used to hear confessions. This site was selected, as a large Catholic population had camped in the vicinity, the Brown Hill and Little Bendigo diggings being in their prime.
The move to the present site of St Alipius, in Victoria Street, seems to have been effected around March 1853. The Reverend Matthew Downing wrote, I went to Ballarat in 1852 and found the place I was on not convenient for the diggers in general, [that is, the Brown Hill site] so I changed the place and went on the place which there is some difficulty about at present. [that is, the Victoria Street site] That was after the first heavy rains in 1853. At that time I opened a school. The ground disputed was at that time used by the children to meet the calls of nature.
The St Alipius Chapel was established in a tent near the eastern boundary of the St Alipius church grounds in Victoria Street (between Princes and King Streets). it became an important meeting place for formal and informal meetings during the weeks before the Eureka Stockade.
During the Eureka era the Parish Priest was Father Patrick Smyth. He tried to negotiate with Camp officials during the height of the goldfields agitation.
Today St Alipius is a substantial bluestone church.
- Dorothy Wickham, St Alipius, 1996
- The Eureka Trails publicity brochure, undated.